GORE IN THE STORE
BATTLE ROYALE *****
Directed by Eugenie Joseph/Thomas Doran/Brendan Faulkner.
Starring Felix Ward, Maria Pechukas, Dan Scott, A.J. Lowenthal, Peter Iasillo Jr., Lisa Friede.
Horror, USA, 85 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Limited Edition Blu-ray by 101 Films on 26th April 2021.
The turn of the new Millennium was a revolutionary time for Asian cinema. Hideo Nakata’s RING and Takashi Miike’s AUDITION had crossed over into something approaching mainstream success – though those who had been keeping a watchful eye on Japanese movies for a while would have hardly been surprised to note the adulation awaiting them. The real world had been rocked by mass shootings, victimising or perpetrated by kids (or both): Dunblane in the U.K. and Columbine in the U.S. A spate of butterfly knife stabbings in Japan meant that Koushon Takami’s 1999 novel “Battle Royale” tapped into a widespread unease going into the new century, particularly in regard to youth culture.
The premise offered a commercially appealing survivalist scenario designed to satisfy audience bloodlust: a large cast (who just happen to be school children) systematically slaughtering each other in gloriously violent ways. There were nods to a range of earlier sci-fi / horror-inflected texts and films, including THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, THE LORD OF THE FLIES and THE RUNNING MAN. Those with a fondness for the less respectable corners of cinema might have detected elements of everything from Brian Trenchard-Smith’s TURKEY SHOOT and the long-forgotten (but fun) Rutger Hauer vehicle WEDLOCK.
Septuagenarian veteran action director Kinju Fukasaku brought a lot of energy to the cinematic translation of the contentious book – and the absence of contemporary communication devices coupled with almost the entire cast in school uniform means BATTLE ROYALE has aged better than most of its teen-pitched cinematic contemporaries. The scenario is established with typical efficiency: in the new century, Japan’s ruling class fear the younger generation so much and are so desperate to counter school truancy / rebellion that they have created the Battle Royale Act. The first reel captures a fracturing system: a teacher stabbed at his own school, a parental suicide, a chilling glimpse of a bloodied, grinning schoolgirl emerging the “winner” of the eponymous contest.
Teacher ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano (an inspired bit of casting) oversees the latest Year 9 class to participate in the Battle Royale. The 42 students awake on an evacuated island to be informed of today’s lesson: kill each other until one of you emerges victorious. A suitably goofy instructional video showcases an unrelentingly cheery host explaining the set-up while fooling around with an axe. Kitano swiftly despatches a female student not listening to the video and provides a gruesome demonstration to everyone of the consequences of trying to remove the universal tracking collars fitted to the neck of all contestants.
The arterial-spraying violence retains the power of shock, principally due to the age of the protagonists, despite over two decades worth of more graphic cinematic tortures. Armed with everything from guns and sickles to pot lids, the teenagers commit government-sanctioned acts of extreme violence while the film’s onscreen bodycount ticks down alarmingly fast. The abundance of bullet-riddled bodies and throat slashings is balanced by a fine streak of black humour, including the disarming sight of a student with an axe in his head repeatedly insisting “I’m fine”..
It’s not entirely heartless, however. Fukasaku’s long-held contempt of authority ensures that the audience is entirely empathetic to the ensemble of junior assassins. Established school politics extend to the island: the only difference is an extensive range of weapons. Early mistrust between peers is inherited from relatable earlier experiences in the school halls. Sexual hang-ups and enduring grudges are further exposed by the lawless environment. It’s easy to see why Tarantino cast Chiaki Kuriyama as GoGo in KILL BILL: VOLUME ONE based on the frenzied violence she perpetrates here – but the pathos conveyed in her death throes reminds us she is a human being too. The script is punctuated by mundane, credible teenage woes found in every school in the world: “I just didn’t want to be a loser anymore”. Even the seemingly detached Kitano exposes his own vulnerability: “The kids make fun of me at school and my own kid hates me”.
Everyone remembers the violence, of course, and some of the boldest, most visceral moments still shock: a severed head with a grenade in its mouth probably got a round of applause at festivals in 2000, but the grotesque image of two naked schoolboys with bloodied crotches (while their killer calmly walks away) is genuinely disturbing. BATTLE ROYALE’s influence on socially conscious American action and horror pictures over the last two decades cannot be over-estimated, from the obvious (THE HUNGER GAMES, THE PURGE) to those hybridising the concept with the conventions of the slasher film or the post-SAW sadistic survivalist picture (THE FURIES and TRIGGERED respectively). This, however, still has the edge and, thanks to the extensive location shooting and old-school make-up FX, is refreshed anew in Arrow’s 4k restoration, with vivid daylit colours and, of course, plentiful splashes of blood and gore.
Extras - The five-disc set is an embarrassment of riches for BR fans. All the significant extras of earlier releases are retained, including a valuable 50 minute “making of” with on-set footage and an extended version of the film with further character beats and new FX shots. Directed by Kenta Fukasaku after the death of his father early in production, BATTLE ROYALE II: REQUIEM is also included in two different cuts; it’s well worth a look and contains some astonishingly subversive post-9/11 imagery and themes, but also dramatically flawed. Tom Mes – with Jasper Sharp – contributes a new, typically informative commentary to the theatrical cut of the original film and is also the author of the 120-page monograph “Kinji Fukasaku: Man of Rage” accompanying this limited-edition set.
The stand-out extras are new to this release. “Bloody Education: Kenta Fukasaku” is an enlightening interview with the writer-producer-director, capturing his late father’s proud status as a rule breaker and a horrific experience in his teenage years – both of which were instrumental in his attraction to this project. Fukasaku’s association with Kitano, the controversy courted by the film’s Japanese release and key changes to the original book are also covered. “Coming of Age: Battle Royale at 20” has former Tartan Video head Paul Smith and Kim Newman among the commentators reflecting on the film’s marketing campaign, international reception – and a notable U.K. critic screening that coincided with 9/11.